Oscar 2007: Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd

Johnny Depp Is Sweeney Todd

“Johnny Depp's performance is quite remarkable. Sweeney's desire for revenge and his simmering anger and hurt carry the story forward, and Johnny finds the most amazing variety within that narrow set of emotions. The intensity is at a boil all the time and he never drops it. It's real anger”Stephen Sondheim

Impressive in his dark look, brave singing voice, and brilliant acting, Johnny Depp gives a dazzling, haunting performance in the horror-musical-movie “Sweeney Todd,” one for which he should receive his third Best Actor Oscar nomination, perhaps even win the coveted award.

Sweeney Todd marks Depp's sixth teaming with director Tim Burton, following “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Corpse Bride.”

Need to Stretch

“Every time Johnny and I work together, we try to do something different, and singing for a whole movie is not something we're used to,” says Burton. “You never just want to feel like, 'Okay, that was easy. What's next' Johnny and I always want to stretch ourselves, and this was perfect outlet for that.”

The Beginning

In 2001, before Burton was even attached to direct “Sweeney Todd,” he visited Depp at his house in South France and gave him a copy of the Angela Lansbury stage production on CD.

Depp recalls: “Tim said, 'I don't know if you've ever heard this. Give it a listen.' I gave it a listen and thought, 'Well, that's interesting.' Then, five or six years later, the question comes, 'Do you think you can sing' The answer I gave Tim was, 'I don't know. I'll see if I can.'”

The Kid in the Band

In the 1980s, Depp had played guitar in a band in Florida called The Kids, although he says he never actually sang an entire song. “I was the guy who would come in and sing the harmony, very quickly,” he laughs. “It would be all of like three seconds and then I was out, and I could find my way back to the dark and continue playing guitar. So I had never sung a song, certainly not.”

“I said to Tim, 'I'm going to go into the studio with this pal of mine and I'm going to investigate and try and sing the songs, and if I'm close then we can talk about it, or I'll call you and say, 'you know what, I can't do it. It's just impossible.”

Unique Collaboration

“Johnny and Tim are like any good team with almost an unspoken way of doing things, and can practically read each other's minds,” observes producer Richard Zanuck. “Johnny looks to Tim for guidance, and Tim looks to Johnny for taking what he has outlines and pushing it a little further. It's a deep friendship, and they're both lovely people, fun to work with and hard-working. And they're both at the top of their game. So the combination is wonderful in terms of freshness and inventiveness.”

Key to the Character

For Depp, the key to Sweeney Todd was to think of him not as a killer but as a victim. He reflects: “Sweeney is obviously a dark figure, but I think quite a sensitive figure, hyper-sensitive and has experienced something very dark and traumatic in his life, a grave injustice. But I always saw him as a victim. Anyone who is victimized to that degree and then turns around and becomes a murderer can't be all there.”

Depp says he also saw Sweeney as “a little bit slow. Not dumb, just a half-step behind. The rug was pulled out from under his perfect life, his perfect world. He was a 15-year hellhole. The only reason he came back was to eliminate the people who had done him wrong.”

Incapable of Happiness

Says Depp: “Sweeney is incapable of feeling happy, unless this corner has been turned and he's that much closer to his objective, which is slaughtering the people who have wronged him.”

Favored Instruments

Sweeney's favored instruments of death are his cutthroat razors, the shiny implements that are also his tools of trade as a barber, and which Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) held on to while he was in Australia.

Once back in Sweeney's hands, they become both his lifeline and his means of revenge, and he serenades them in the song, “My Friends.” Depp explains: These blades are his family. They're an extension of him, the only love in his life, now that his family's gone.”

Depp on Helena Bonham Carter

Says Depp: “Helena is very brave. I mean, without question, that's the toughest part in the movie, and she beautifully made it her own. Helena made Mrs. Lovett kind of vulnerable and horrific and funny and sweet. There's a lot of angles on that woman that Helena brought to her.”